Rodney Cordner: A lookat the long life of an Irish folk troubadour

Saturday 12th May 2007

Susanne Martin traces the lengthy musical career of veteran Irish folk singer/songwriter RODNEY CORDNER.

Rodney Cordner
Rodney Cordner

Last year saw the release of a fascinating compilation by Rodney Cordner, 'The Early Years'. It threw the spotlight once more on the veteran Irish folk singer and Portadown native who has spent almost four decades writing songs, playing concerts and recording albums. Rodney lived his younger years during The Troubles in Northern Ireland, the last 34 years as a Christian and 25 years as a duo alongside fiddler Jean-Pierre Rudolph. He and Jean-Pierre are still very active. Said Rodney, "We're still busy in the folk scene and we still do Christian events, always have, in most of the countries we've worked in. We've played in every kind of venue you could imagine."

Rodney started off as a musician in Ireland when Elvis, Johnny Cash and Chuck Berry were in their prime. But despite these early influences he believes his roots are embedded in folk music, "In the early '60s I got hold of the 'Freewheelin' Bob Dylan' and that changed my life musically and led me onto singer/songwriters like Woody Guthrie, Leonard Cohen and Pete Seeger. Then I discovered the Dubliners and other Irish artists." During this time he performed on the local folk scene but also began to get involved on the fringe of paramilitary activity at the beginning of The Troubles. However, in 1973 Rodney became a Christian. He recalled in an interview with New Christian Media magazine, "I was working with a guy called Ronnie who talked about Jesus with so much love and was obviously living what he was saying. He wasn't the person I was used to relating to, but he made an impression and so I finally gave in and became a Christian." Consequently Rodney's music became focused on presenting the Gospel and singing to promote peace. His self-titled first album in 1976 and his second, 'Don't Look Away' in 1978, sound very much like pop Jesus music and stylistically are a long way from his later popular folk style. Rodney explained, "Well, my roots are folk. But when I got my first record deals with Christian labels, I'd been listening to Larry Norman, Garth Hewitt, Ishmael and the likes and assumed that was what Christian listeners wanted. But I do seem to remember a band called Parchment telling me to take the Irish folk direction, which as I've already said were my roots anyway."

Rodney moved back into the mainstream folk scene and teamed up with Tim Maney for the 1980 release 'Only One Name'. That was the last album he recorded before meeting talented French fiddler Jean-Pierre Rudolph. Rodney recalled, "I met Jean-Pierre in 1980 in his home town of Strasbourg, France through a mutual friend. We did a festival in Holland together and just kept going. We never really planned it, it just kind of evolved into a duo." Since that first concert together in Stenwijk back in May 1981, the pair have stayed together recording albums despite living a thousand miles apart. "I guess that means we don't fall out with each other," Rodney said. "He is an excellent musician, arranger and producer having of course studied jazz at Strasbourg Conservatory and greatly enriches the songs we do. Even on old traditional ballads like 'Black Is The Colour' to name but one, he does unique arrangements. Although we also do our own individual projects these days, we still tour in UK and Europe, doing a few dozen concerts per year."

During the '80s Rodney recorded four more albums. 'On The Other Hand' (1983) and 'Up Hill And Down Brae' (1985) were recorded to challenge attitudes to crisis and individuals. Then, after 'We Stand Forgiven' (1987), his seventh album 'Touch Of Irish Joy' (1989) was made the same year he teamed up with accomplished Catholic folk musician Larry Hogan. Rodney and the Dubliner played together on the Divided We Stand tour, which was designed to promote a message of peace and reconciliation. Unfortunately the pair couldn't perform in Ireland for obvious reasons. "There are a few situations we could do it in, but obviously the people who need to hear it won't be in sympathy with it anywhere," Rodney explained to Strait magazine in autumn 1989. "The message is just as relevant outside Ireland - amongst black and white in England and South Africa, Germans and Dutch, kids and parents, husbands and wives."

The '90s saw Rodney record another four albums, 'Sing For The Song' (1990), 'Ireland - A Sense Of Place' (1993), 'Measure Of Dreams' (1996) and 'One Of The Few' (1999). During the decade Rodney remembers one highlight was performing at the Cornerstone Festival. He remembered, "We toured a bunch of times in the USA, mostly the Eastern States, and our promoter knew the Jesus People in Chicago and got us onto Cornerstone. We had worked with Glenn Kaiser and the Resurrection Band here in Europe a few times before that, so we knew them quite well." Unusually, considering Rodney and Jean-Pierre's ongoing European popularity, the folk duo never made a major pitch at the dollar-rich American market. Said Rodney about the USA, "Have you seen the size of the place? You could lose Ireland 20 times in the State of Texas alone and spend years gigging in just one state. Besides, back in our early years, because of family commitments etc, we weren't prepared to do that amount of touring over there. Anyway we were always very busy in Europe. But we did cover a bit of ground over there. We played Christian Artists in Estes Park, etc. Over the past six or seven years I've been over every year or two doing solo tours."

Rodney has been described by some reviewers as having similarities to mainstream folk music giant Christy Moore and he does admit that Christy has had a great influence on him. "He is the Elvis (the King) of the folk ballad, a great voice and a great live performer," Rodney said. "I guess Christy has been an influence on me and every other Irish folk artist. But the other real influences for me were Tommy Makam, Liam Clancy, Ronnie Drew, Tom & Colum Sands and later on Paul Brady, Jim McCarthy and Kieran Halpin to name but a few. All great songwriters whose work has been covered by many artists. Van Morrison is somewhere in there too, on a good night he's great. Of course I mustn't forget Christy's brother Luka Bloom, another excellent writer and singer."

Jean-Pierre Rudolph and Rodney Cordner
Jean-Pierre Rudolph and Rodney Cordner

Over the years Rodney has shared the stage with Pete Seeger, Luka Bloom, The Incredible String Band, Tommy Makam and Tommy Sands. Rodney's portfolio also impressively states that he once performed on the same TV show as Johnny Cash. "We were recording a TV special for EO, a Dutch TV network channel which went out on Christmas night a few years ago," he explained. "We'd heard he was to be on the same programme; Adrian Snell was on it also. But when we did our couple of songs, before a live audience actually, he wasn't about. Later I got a video of the broadcast and he was in it but they went to Nashville to record him, while we were recorded in Holland. So I never met the man. It's a pity because I always liked and respected him in everyway and now because of the movie (Walk The Line) and stuff he's a star again to a whole new generation."

From the millennium up to the present, Rodney has recorded just two new albums, 'Milestones' in 2001 and 'Violets' in 2003. The track "This Land" which features in a presentation and on the 'Violets' album, an anagram of Lost-Lives, was recorded with a well know Irish poet called Adrian Fox. Rodney explained, "It is a collection of his poems and a few of my songs which is our tiny homage to all the lives lost, during the 30 years of conflict in Northern Ireland. It is on the theme of Restorative Justice and we performed it at many peace conferences and seminars. Do check out But this song, the album and the project were very special to me."

Throughout the many years as a performer there have been a few songs that stand out in importance for Rodney Cordner. Although there are a couple more which helped him to establish his career he chose three of the "really important ones" that are "very special" to him, including "The Orchard" from the album 'One Of The Few'. "It's a reflective song," he said. "I wrote it just a few years ago. It's not the kind of thing I could have written 20 years ago when I was younger. 'Only One Name' from the album of the same name is also an important one. I recorded it again in the '90s for a 'Celtic Praise' CD. All I can I say is that I feel it's a really inspired song. Also, 'This Land' from a very early album. I wrote it as a plea or prayer for peace when The Troubles began in the 1970s and although I dropped it for periods of time I kept bringing it out and performing it again and again. Even now the so called Troubles are over in Ireland, take a look at the world, it's easy to see the song is still relevant. I still perform it at almost every concert and again I've re-recorded it a couple of times."

Last year saw the release of 'The Early Years', a 20-track compilation of Cordner tracks taken mostly from his first five albums, but also featuring two recently recorded bonus tracks. Rodney spoke about the retrospective, "It was the idea of Alan Gibson who runs a Jesus Music online mail order distribution website. He's an old friend and used to actually manage me way back in the '70s. I wasn't that keen at first, because a lot of those early recordings were low budget and much, though not all, of the production quality is pretty poor. But Alan talked me into it; he reckons there's a lot of old gospel rock fans still around whose turntables no longer work!" The year 2006 also saw Rodney do another tour of the US, covering quite a few states. "I toured with a band from Indiana called The Goldmine Pickers. They play Americana style music which I like very much. It's country sounding music with intelligent lyrics, in the tradition of Towns Van Zandt/Chip Taylor/Steve Earle fused with a bit of western swing. . . work that one out! I've worked with them for a couple of years and also toured with them over here."

Rodney is currently in the process of working on two new albums, of which "One is a duet project with Sammy Horner of the band The Electrics and it's in the Americana style actually, I mean to say we both grew up with a lot of that kind of music around us, before we found out we were Celts. The other one is kind of my life story in song and a flute/sax playing friend of mine John Giffin is producing that in his studio here in Ireland. But I've already been working on it for nearly two years so could be a while before it's available. It will be different. I continue to do quite a bit of work here in Ireland and on top of that I run a folk club myself."

After a long career writing and recording his folk tunes Rodney still enjoys it and looks forward to doing more gigs. "I love the folk scene, especially in the British Isles," he said, "Germany too has a good scene and in this electronic age it's important to keep the oral traditions alive." An end to his passion doesn't look likely to come any time soon, and even though they are doing more individual projects now he confidently said, "J P and I are still on the road and although generally we've slowed down, we don't plan to stop." CR

The opinions expressed in this article are not necessarily those held by Cross Rhythms. Any expressed views were accurate at the time of publishing but may or may not reflect the views of the individuals concerned at a later date.
About Susanne Martin
Susanne MartinSusanne Martin is studying journalism at Staffordshire University.


Be the first to comment on this article

We welcome your opinions but libellous and abusive comments are not allowed.

We are committed to protecting your privacy. By clicking 'Send comment' you consent to Cross Rhythms storing and processing your personal data. For more information about how we care for your data please see our privacy policy.